Black Opera: Mary Gentle

★★★

Conrad Scalese is in trouble. It’s around the year 1830 and we meet him in Naples on the morning after he’s watched his new opera Il terrore di Parigi enjoy a stellar success at the Teatro Nuovo. Until just a few hours ago, security, fame and fortune as a librettist beckoned. But since he’s woken up everything has gone wrong. He has a crippling migraine. It turns out that the Teatro Nuovo has been struck by a freak blast of lightning and burned to the ground. People are blaming him for calling down the wrath of God. And the Inquisition are at the door. But all this is just the beginning.

When Conrad is taken in chains to see King Ferdinand II, he is presented with a staggering invitation: the king wishes him to write an opera. However, this isn’t any ordinary opera. It has to be an opera powerful enough to catch at the emotions of its audience: to provoke an unprecedented, forceful rush of feeling. For this is a world where music has the power to unlock the boundaries of the possible and to bring about miraculous events, both evil and benign. And a pan-European society with very dark aims indeed is planning to put on a musical performance which aims to provoke a catastrophe of truly global proportions.

The only way that Ferdinand and Conrad can hope to battle this ‘black opera’ is by coming up with something even more perfect. They have six weeks; a ragtag cast; a composer more used to producing polished drawing-room operas for the social elite; and a librettist whose last effort literally brought the house down. And, fittingly, they also have at least one member of the company running around en travesti and a desperately intense love triangle at the very heart of the production team. What can possibly go wrong?

It was just a matter of time before I stumbled across this novel, which not only combines fantasy and opera but does so in a part of the world that I find endlessly fascinating: in Naples, sprawling beneath the shadow of Vesuvius, with even a cameo appearance by the Flavian amphitheatre out at Pozzuoli. It’s alternate-universe fantasy, as opposed to high fantasy, so the world is recognisable even if certain historical events have played out differently (here, for example, Napoleon scraped a narrow victory at Waterloo). That means that we also have some recognisable characters: not only the French emperor himself and Ferdinand II, but a whole host of composers and singers, most of whom are merely name-dropped (Rossini, Donizetti, Malibran and so forth).

With my limited state of knowledge at the moment, I only recognised one historical figure making a major cameo and that was the primo uomo of Conrad’s opera: Giambattista Velluti. Funnily enough, for a man who in reality has a fair few good stories associated with him, Gentle’s Velluti feels strangely two-dimensional and understated: less of a character than a type. However, he’s a type whose very presence adds exoticism, colour and a chance for the novel to poke fun at the kind of grandiose contractual demands made by his predecessors:

Conrad thought himself lucky to get away without ‘entrance, upstage, riding a
white horse and wearing a plumed helmet’, or ‘disembarks from onstage warship
while a grateful crowd cheer the victor wearing laurels’…
Rumour said Velluti had little sense of humour about such things.

Then we have the struggles with the set designers and the eternal need to smooth egos (‘nothing is quite so terrifying as the mother of a seconda donna who thinks she ought to be the mother of a prima donna‘). Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough, agents of their rival company are trying to kill them. The funny thing is that the book should feel like a breathless race against time, and yet instead I had the feeling that Gentle was enjoying herself too much to forego some of the detail and digressions.

She has great fun exploiting operatic conventions, both within the plot of Conrad’s libretto (which sounds as if it would be a great story) and within the ‘real’ world of the novel. At one point Conrad explains in exasperation, to a character who’s surprised that her male disguise has been seen through, that in a recent opera: ‘we had a soprano dressed as a woman singing the heroine, a mezzo dressed as a man playing the hero, and a contralto dressed as a man but playing a woman disguised in male clothing.’ Put like that, it sounds absurd, and yet the point is that in something like Xerxes or Partenope it somehow all makes perfect sense within the enchanted world of the stage. The lights go down; the curtain goes up; and, even in our mundane real world, an opera is capable of working magic on us all.

Gentle consistently gives the sense that there is a living breathing world beyond the confines of her half-fantasised Naples. The only other book I’ve read by her – the strangely disturbing Ilario – had the same captivating quality, suggesting a half-familiar world rich with potential strangeness. She also feels no need to make everything explicit, which is something I always appreciate in a story: there are half-dropped hints, throwaway allusions and little mysteries. We aren’t always sure about the precise nature of the relationship between characters; or even about the characters themselves. (At the risk of implying spoilers, I wasn’t even sure whether the ending was happy or tragic… or is it simply the best of all possible worlds?)

The one figure I was left itching to know more about was the enigmatic Sandrine, the elegant prima donna of the opera, who might be slightly less donna than the world at large assumes. Not that there’s ever any concrete proof, but I’m pretty sure that we are being teased when we’re told that she has sung the title role in Il cavaliere d’Eon (funnily enough, I was saying to some friends only the other week that the life of the Chevalier d’Eon would make a great opera). Indeed, we later discover that Sandrine has been training herself for years to shrug off her former tessitura of ‘tenor with a baritone lower range‘ and to adopt the ‘mezzo with a contralto base‘ in which she now speaks and sings. Ah yes; of all the characters in this exuberant, flamboyant and sprawling plot, Sandrine is the most mysterious and the most tantalisingly Baroque.

As a novel it isn’t entirely successful, I admit: it is too long and the final section meanders in a way that threatens to lose momentum on more than one occasion. It can be difficult to get a really good idea of the lesser characters’ personalities, as they often don’t seem particularly individualised. Moreover there seems to be an awful lot of rushing from one place to another within a time frame which simply wouldn’t allow so much ground to be covered; and the finale doesn’t so much end, as peter out into a delta of various story threads which raise more questions than they answer.

And there is far too much exposition and digression about religion. Conrad is an Enlightenment man to the core – an atheist. This is given much more weight than it really needs to have, and leads to philosophical discussions at odd moments that don’t always work within the plot (although of course that the question of religious faith is important, given the storyline). Many of the issues, I think, might have been helped by a little tightening here and there. However, despite the occasional tendency to sprawl, the book presented me with a world which felt very familiar from my recent reading about the history of opera, and there were plenty of moments which made me laugh out loud from recognition.

I’d be interested to hear from others who’ve read this, because I sense that for fantasy-readers without much interest in opera, or opera enthusiasts who aren’t all that keen on fantasy, it might be rather less enjoyable. However, for those very few of us at the point where these two fields of interest intersect, it’s a tantalising curiosity; and I found it very enjoyable to lose myself in a book which kept obligingly throwing in so many of my favourite things. Objectively, however, one can’t help feeling that like some operas it would have been better with some of the recitative judiciously trimmed back…

Giambattista Velluti

J.L. Marks, An Italian singer, cut out for English amusement, or, Signor Veluti [sic] displaying his Great parts, satirical print, showing Velluti during his visit to London

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